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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sociologist Yury Levada Dead at 76

Itar-TassYury Levada
Yury Levada, the country's top sociologist who led a revival of public opinion research in the 1980s, died Thursday of an apparent heart attack in his office. He was 76.

It was unclear who might replace him as the head of the Levada Center, the respected independent polling agency he set up in 2003 after leaving VTsIOM under state pressure. He had founded VTsIOM in 1987.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which relies heavily on Levada's research, said Levada had an impeccable reputation and called his death "a terrible human loss" and a huge loss for Russian politics.

"He was one of the most insightful observers of the state of Russian society," Lipman said.

No other public opinion center could match the objectivity and professionalism of the Levada Center, she said.

A Levada Center employee found Levada unconscious in his office at about 2 p.m., Levada Center sociologist Irina Palilova said. Paramedics pronounced him dead when they arrived in an ambulance 40 minutes later.

Levada was ousted from his teaching job at his alma mater, Moscow State University, "for ideological mistakes" in 1969, according to the university's official edict on his ouster. Publication of his sociological work was banned.

It was not until the late 1980s that Levada was officially allowed to resume his public opinion studies. He founded VTsIOM, then the All-Soviet Center for Public Opinion Studies, in 1987 and turned it into the country's most respected polling agency.

State financing of the center dwindled to zero with the Soviet breakup, forcing Levada to turn to commercial contracts to keep the center afloat. The outside research orders came from political parties and Western companies.

Although the center had not received one ruble of government funding in 12 years, the state revamped VTsIOM, now the all-Russian center, into a joint-stock company in September 2003 and appointed a new board of directors.

Levada and most of his 105 staffers quit, saying that the independence of their work would be compromised if they stayed.

Levada and his supporters believed that shakeup was prompted by the center's polls, which had not always produced favorable results for United Russia and had shown negative opinions about the military campaign in Chechnya.

The government said at the time that the reorganization aimed to make the center's finances more transparent.

Shortly before his departure from VTsIOM, Levada told reporters of months spent going from official to official: "I'd ask, 'What problems do you have with VTsIOM?' 'No problems.' 'What problems do you have with me?' 'No problems.' And a bit later, in a confiding whisper, with shaky voices, they'd say, 'We've been ordered to cut off your head.' "

Levada and his team went on to set up a new center, originally called VTsIOM-A but eventually renamed the Levada Center.

Georgy Satarov, founder and head of the independent Indem anti-corruption think tank, said he did not expect the Kremlin to attempt to exert pressure on the center or undercut its independence after Levada's death.

Satarov said the Kremlin had enough loyal pollsters at its disposal. Also, no one in the Kremlin "is really paying that much attention to the polls any more," he said.

VTsIOM head Valery Fyodorov, a little-known political analyst who campaigned for United Russia before replacing Levada, said Levada had successfully accomplished "what he set out to do" when he established VTsIOM in 1987. "He established the first center to study public opinion, but within three or four years, other centers began opening up," Fyodorov said.

Fyodorov said he did not see the Levada Center as a competitor, despite lingering tensions after Levada's departure. "We work in segments where the Levada Center presence is not so strong," he said.

Fyodorov said that, aside from the government -- VTsIOM's largest client -- other clients included United Russia and regional administrations, whereas the Levada Center worked more with nongovernmental organizations and Western organizations.

"The Levada Center went out and proved it could survive on its own as an independent company," he said.

Indem kicked off a joint project with the Levada Center earlier this year to assess the negative impact of bureaucracy in Russia, and Satarov said he was confident the project would be completed.

But Satarov, who knew Levada from the early 1980s when he worked at the Institute of Sociology in what was then the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said the death dealt a "heavy blow" to Russian social sciences.

"We have lost one of the few who initiated and led the revival of the social sciences in the country," he said.

Levada was born in 1930 in Ukraine.

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days, the Levada Center said on its web site.

Staff Writer Simon Saradzhyan contributed to this report.